For many families, screen time is a touchy subject even in the best of times. Now, with parents and kids holed up together 24/7 and everything from school to birthday parties taking place online, it’s even harder to know how to put boundaries on your child’s screen time.

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To support remote learning, many schools are distributing laptops or tablets for each student, so access to screens has increased in many households. Plus, you may be working from home without your usual childcare supports, which leaves you with less time to keep tabs on your kids’ screen use.

Given all these unusual stressors, there’s no right answer when it comes to managing screen time during the coronavirus crisis. But our experts have some tips to help you set expectations, support your child and — maybe most important of all! — cut yourself some slack.

Set boundaries — when you can

Right now, limits on screen time will probably look a lot different than they once did. Start by acknowledging — to your kids and to yourself — that with school and socializing happening online, increased screen time is unavoidable. But there are still techniques you can use to maintain boundaries:

  • Start with compassion. With so much in flux right now, unstructured screen time is an important source of comfort and entertainment for many kids. Letting your kids know that you understand their needs is a simple way to reduce stress for everyone. “You can say to your kids, ‘Look, I know you need a break. I know you need to relax,’” says Dave Anderson, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. “Let them know that a certain portion of their screen time is theirs to do what they like with.”
  • Offer additional screen time as a bonus. Try using extra screen time as an incentive for good behavior. If you go this route, be sure to let your child know exactly what is necessary to earn the extra time. You and your child can even write down the goal together and post it in their workspace as a reminder.
  • Brainstorm alternatives. “When we tell kids not to do something, we almost always need to tell them what to be doing instead,” says Stephanie Lee, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. Dr. Lee recommends developing an “activity menu” with your child that lists their preferred non-screen activities (like crafts, reading or playing with a pet). That way, when they’re feeling bored or overwhelmed, they’ll have easy choices at the ready.
  • Keep a schedule. It can also be helpful to set specific times of the day or week when your kids know they’ll be allowed to use their screens. For instance, maybe the 30 minutes before dinner are always open for screen time. That kind of structure helps kids know what to expect and cuts down on their requests for screens at other times. Plus, it gives you space to schedule other tasks at a time when you know your children will be busy.
  • Stay the course. Once you set up a system, you may find that your kids push back against it. “Maybe they’ll be moody for the first few days,” Dr. Anderson says. “They’ll ask you a thousand times, they’ll get angry. That’s what’s called an extinction burst.” Dr. Anderson explains that it’s natural for children to test new boundaries to see if they’re firm, but if you can stick to your plan and tolerate their irritation for a few days, pushback will likely fade as kids settle into their new routines.
  • Model healthy screen use. Now more than ever, it’s helpful to lead by example. If you make a point of setting aside your own screens during set times, your children will be more likely to do the same without putting up a fight. Plus, taking breaks from tech has the added benefit of helping you limit your own media intake and giving you moments of mindfulness with your kids.

Prioritize wellness

Another way of thinking about screen time is to look at how your child is spending their time in general. Dr. Anderson suggests that parents use the idea of a “developmental checklist” to consider whether a child is engaged in activities important for healthy development. If they are, Dr. Anderson says, “you’ve got a pretty busy kid,” and so screen time isn’t likely to be a problem. Before the coronavirus crisis, the checklist might have included things like spending time with friends, keeping up with schoolwork, and participating in extracurriculars. Now, the specifics will look different, but you can still use the same idea to assess whether your child is spending too much time on screens. Ask yourself:

  • Is my child sleeping enough and eating a somewhat balanced diet?
  • Are they getting some form of exercise every day?
  • Are they getting some quality time with family?
  • Do they use some screen time to keep in touch with friends?
  • Are they invested in schoolwork and keeping up with homework?

If you can answer yes to most of those questions, then it’s probably not a huge deal if your child is getting some extra screen time these days.

Emphasize social connections

When it comes to limiting time on screens, there’s one important exception: social connections. Dr. Anderson recommends taking advantage of technology to stay connected with friends and family, even if doing so means your child spends a little more time on screens than you typically allow.

  • Connect with family. “The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for kids under the age of two — except for FaceTiming with relatives,” Dr. Anderson says. “FaceTime with family during this time may be a source of connection for you, and it may also provide a way of maintaining relationships, especially for young kids.” Setting your children up to chat with relatives can also give you a chance to relax or get other things done, which can benefit the whole family.
  • Be creative. Work with your child to come up with fun ways to connect with friends online. A Zoom graduation party might not be quite like the real thing, but it’s still a way to help your child feel close to peers and loved ones during social distancing. Maybe your child and their friends would enjoy setting up their screens in the kitchen and baking together or watching a movie together while texting about it. Remember that online games can also offer genuine social connection for kids, so it might make sense to rethink your usual rules about gaming.
  • Consider your child’s usual social schedule. Thinking back on your child’s regular social life before coronavirus can be a good way to figure out how much social screen time makes sense. For instance, if your child used to chat with friends at school and then have a playdate on Saturday, maybe it makes sense for them to spend short bursts of time talking with friends during the week and schedule a bigger activity for the weekend.

Be present for your child

The kind of content your child interacts with is just as important as how much time they’re spending on screens. To ensure that your child is spending their newly expanded screen time in appropriate ways, the best strategy is often to check in frequently and connect with your child over the things they’re interested in.

  • Get insight into gaming. If you’re concerned about a game your child likes to play, it’s helpful to sit down with your child and watch them play. “The key is that you have to really monitor what you say,” Dr. Anderson says. “Try to avoid criticizing the game or reminding your child of the next thing they have to do after gaming, and also try to avoid asking a ton of questions. Instead, just try to comment on what you’re seeing onscreen.” If your child explains something to you, you can also reflect it back to show you’re paying attention. That way, your child will get the message that you’re genuinely interested in the game and will be more likely to invite you into what they’re doing.
  • Play with your child. Playing the games your child enjoys yourself can give you even deeper insight into what they’re doing with their screen time. Plus, kids often love to show off their skills and will enjoy teaching you something you don’t know. You might even introduce your kids to favorite games from your own past! By playing together, you’ll show your child that you don’t think games are evil and that you understand how they can be a tool for bonding.
  • Encourage exploration. If your children tend to play the same games or watch the same shows over and over, try introducing some healthy new activities into their online diet. If they’re reluctant, consider joining them in checking out a new game together — your positive attention might be the incentive they need. The Child Mind Institute has an extensive list of creative and educational online activities you can use to mix up your child’s screen time routine.

Go easy on yourself — and your kids

As with so many aspects of life during the coronavirus crisis, it’s impossible for anyone to be the perfect parent right now. “This is not a time for strict limits,” Dr. Anderson says. If relaxing rules around screens gives you time to work, exercise, or do whatever else you need to do, accept that that may be the best decision right now. “If you can give yourself a B minus at the end of the day, with a few meltdowns from your kids but everyone’s fed and getting some sleep, you’re doing pretty well,” says Dr. Anderson. Right now, having compassion for yourself and your family is much more important than getting the rules just right.

Click here to see all resources related to the coronavirus crisis.